The Supermarine Spiteful: the Spitfire’s replacement

By 1944, the RAF was looking for a piston-engined aircraft that would replace its aging Spitfire, that had been the main British fighter aircraft since the beginning of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Although later versions of the Spitfire became more powerful, with updated engines and better aerodynamics, there was a need for a brand new aircraft, which would offer certain advantages that the Spitfire lacked. Spitfires were mainly powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, and while there were several attempts at making Spitfires powered by Rolls-Royce Griffon engines, these were not as successful as their predecessors, mainly due to engine problems (this is not to say that the Griffon was a bad engine, but that it didn’t combine well with the Spitfire). This is where the Supermarine Spiteful came in. The Supermarine Spiteful was a re-engined Spitfire (it used a 2375 hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 69 liquid-cooled V12) with new laminar-flow wings and a modified fuselage to combat instability and to attain a higher performance, which the elliptical wings of the Spitfire were having difficulty achieving. The reason for this was that the way in which fluids (part of the domain of aeroelasticity) would pass over the Spitfire’s wing would not permit the Spitfire to exceed a certain speed. The Spitfire’s light wings would flex at high speeds, changing the airflow and limiting the maximum safe dive speed to 772 km/h (480 mph), which was not enough to escape being shot down in increasingly quick and dangerous dogfights. The Spiteful was intended to resolve this problem. In late 1943, it was decided to begin production of the Supermarine Spiteful later on in 1944. Instead of building a new prototype of the Spiteful from scratch, the manufacturers just made a Spitfire, with the new laminar-flow wings attached to it. In short, the Spiteful was very similar to the Spitfire, but just had an updated wing, with certain differences in the control mechanisms (elevators, rudders, ailerons). In June 1944, the 1st Spiteful prototype was rolled out and flew for the first time. The flight was successful, albeit Pilot Jeffery Quill noticing the aircraft’s tendency to stall (when a combustion engine stops working due to an abrupt action such as braking [this occurs in cars and planes] or difficult manoeuvres) in mid-air, which would cause major problems if the aircraft were to be used in combat. Sure enough, in September 1944, during a mock-combat, the prototype crashed, sadly killing its pilot, Frank Furlong. The causes for the crash weren’t precisely known, but it was assumed that the crash was due to the use of new control rods for the elevator (the 2 horizontally-placed panels that move up and down on the tail of the aircraft, permitting it to climb and dive) instead of the old control wires, that had been used on aircraft since World War I. After the crash, it was decided to modify the fuselage of the Spitfire (not the Spiteful, as the 2 aircraft used the same fuselage) so as to allow the pilot to have a more clear view above the aircraft’s nose. To do this, a larger bubble canopy (the canopy is the area in which the pilot of a small aircraft sits) was put in place to see over the 5-blade propellor. As well as this, the tail of the aircraft was enlarged, to ensure more stability in flight and the propellor was modified so as to occupy a large surface area, also for stability reasons. The 2nd prototype of the Spiteful was produced in January 1945, and the flight was successful, with the speed of the Spiteful far exceeding that of the Spitfire and most of the problems related to stalling having been solved. Noting the aircraft’s agility and the resolution of most of its technical problems, the Air Ministry placed an order for 650 models of the aircraft. This order was reduced by 150 aircraft around VE Day, as those Spitefuls were converted to Seafang models (the naval fighter version of the Spiteful, of which only 18 were produced [the order for the Seafang was also reduced due to the advent of the jet age], 9 of which were part of the 150 aircraft order reduction). The 3rd Supermarine Spiteful prototype flew in February 1946, and although the constant stalling had been surpassed and the visibility improved, the Spiteful was found out to have more structural problems in its body than expected, apparently due to poor build quality. More problems ensued, as discussions as to what modifications to undertake dwindled into nothing and jet aircraft programs became the core interest of the Air Ministry. A positive result of the invention of the Spiteful was the attainment of the highest speed for a British piston-powered aircraft, 795 km/h (494 mph), scored by aircraft RB518, that was written off after its 7th forced landing. Problems like these were, in fact, quite common amongst Spiteful aircraft, and were the main reason for the eventual dropping of the project in 1947. The main reason for this was the advent of the jet age. All Spiteful aircraft were scrapped as of 1948, and its legacy lives on in the enlarged “Spiteful tail”, that the last Spitfire versions copied. 28th of December 2020.

Afficher l’image source
The Spiteful was produced by British aerospace company Vickers, which absorbed Supermarine in 1928, but kept the Supermarine brand name.

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